2948-09-01 – Tales from the Service: The Deadly Decision 

Firstly, Nojus and I are alive, and Saint-Lô survived the first engagement at Margaux, though once again we have come through with some significant damage. At the momentCaptain Liao does not think the damage excessive, and we remain in the theater of battle. 

While the results of the first part of the action at Margaux, which took place three days before this feed item is set to go live, are being allowed through to the datasphere in the clear by Naval Intelligence, this week it seems rather a waste of this space to provide an after-action report. Instead, given the results, I thought it more interesting to bring you the reader into the conference where the battle-plan was decided, as the “unimaginative” nature of this plan has been roundly criticized throughout the datasphere in the days since. 

Though Admiral Zahariev’s plan was admittedly conservative, I do not personally believe this caused the failure to achieve victory. Indeed, a bolder plan may have met with additional disasters, and after Nojus and I talked with Captain Liao, it is clear that his conservative planning probably minimized the damage. 

Despite the sensationalist reporting, the Fifth Fleet gave as good as it got in the skies over Margaux – several enemy ships have limped out of the battle-area since the two fleets separated, and reports indicate at least a few were destroyed outright. We had losses as well, mainly among light cruisers and escorting destroyers. The Incarnation still holds dominance in Margaux orbit, but it looks like the battle is far from over. Hopefully next week I will be the bearer of brighter news. 

[N.T.B - I am not so optimistic. Can't really put a finger on why.] 

Admiral Reneer Zahariev steepled his fingers and stared into the glowing display that dominated his flagship’s command center. His increasingly lengthy pauses were beginning to cause unease among his eight dreadnought captains and the swarm of staff officers who surrounded them, but if he noticed their fidgeting, he didn’t acknowledge it. 

Captain Jayendra Liao of Saint-Lô glared at anyone in his retinue he caught muttering or shuffling nervously, remaining otherwise silent and still. He didn’t like the atmosphere of uncertainty any more than the next officer, but making that known could only put more pressure on an admiral already facing the greatest challenge of his generation. The Incarnation fleet and the Fifth Fleet were now circling each other around Margaux’s mottled blue limb, and Zahariev alone could decide the next steps of the deadly orbital dance. 

The tall, somewhat stooped figure standing at the admiral’s right elbow silently guided the attention of the Fifth Fleet commander to the handful of newly-emptied Marine assault transports loitering in high orbit. A thin chain of lesser vessels wound down from their bellies to the surface and back as dropships and logistics launches ferried equipment down to Margaux and casualties back up. The cluster was keeping its distance from the twin formations of Tyrant heavy cruisers, but also from the concentrated battle-line of the Fifth Fleet. 

Both sides knew the transports had spent their bolt and were of little real value – their battalions were groundside, establishing the first perimeter in the Causey Plana. Outpost Judicael, the hinge-point of this defense. The ground-pounders could hold their own long enough – hopefully – to let the Fifth Fleet’s battle-line choose the terms of the engagement over Margaux, and the transports’ high orbits allowed them to retreat easily from any large Incarnation move to intercept them. 

“Admiral?” Captain Zan Corti, the captain of the flagship Triasta Asteria, wagered it safe to prompt his commander. 

“Mr. Kirke-Moore is suggesting the use of those transports as bait.” Zahariev replied slowly. “If they commit to an escape vector, the enemy might dispatch ships to run them down.” 

Several officers in the compartment gasped or looked around, horrified. The Incarnation fleet was already split two ways, but in a mutually reinforcing manner. Whittling away two or three of the more than thirty enemy ships in planetary orbit would help, but not enough to make the odds safe, especially given the mauling the fleet’s heavy elements had encountered at Berkant and Bodrogi. Sacrificing the crews and wounded aboard the transports to remove a few enemy ships from the equation was a horrific suggestion of the sort only a semi-retired pirate like Kirke-Moore would suggest. 

“If I may, Admiral.” Captain Jayendra Liao of Saint-Lô stepped forward. “Why rush the engagement? The Marine ships have done their part. The enemy can't win on the ground without a lot more troops, and the Fish have the system periphery locked down. They’ll have to split their forces to-” 

Battles are not won by surrendering the initiative, Captain.” Bozsi Kirke-Moore didn’t turn around. “They will sense the trap and work their way out of it in time, so the Fifth Fleet shall not give them time.” Kirke-Moore famously didn’t take the Fish – the stealth assault cutters, which earned their nickname for being named after aquatic ichthyoids of Earth – very seriously. He thought the vessels’ expensive stealth features irrelevant, and perhaps he was right; any old armed cutter could chase down and carve up an unescorted logistics convoy, and the steath boats didn’t have the acceleration potential to outrun a Tyrant any more than the standard models. 

“What can they do?” Captain Corti replied, his dislike of the pirate who occupied his ship evident in every syllable. “Whether they know it yet or not, their army is trapped on the ground.” 

“They can leave the ground troops and save their cruisers.” Kirke-Moore seemed to think this option was obvious. “And I if they see the trap too soon, they will.” 

How the man could possibly know this wasn’t clear, but nobody present seemed interested in challenging him. The Incarnation, human though its people were, did not operate like any human force. Nobody could be certain they wouldn’t sacrifice their entire force of infantry, including armor, close-air support assets, and thousands upon thousands of elite Immortals, to save the comparably lesser crews of their battle fleet. If the fleet did depart, the victory at Margaux would be incomplete, and the enemy could doubtless draft more troops in a few months, training them as the Incarnation did by implantation and dataload. 

“We should not sacrifice the Marines unless absolutely necessary.” Admiral Zahariev at length concluded. “There is another way.” 

Captain Liao knew this decision to be political as much as practical. Relations between the Confederated Marines and their Navy counterparts had been strained since the loss of Adimari Valis, when the Marines had been prevented from landing to reinforce the extensive mercenary and FDA garrison there by the Navy’s failure to plow through the Incarnation fleet to reach the planet. The Marines had fought delaying actions on worlds like Mereena and counterattacked to raid several small supply outposts along the Coreward Frontier, but the Marines' inability to get stuck into a proper slugging match seemed to be hurting morale among the Marines and FDA alike. The plan had been – and still was – for Margaux to change all that. 

After a long delay, the admiral took a deep breath and continued. “The ground-side batteries can engage one element of the enemy fleet while we attack the other.” 

This idea, though simple, had the major disadvantage of revealing what lay behind the multiple lines of defense on the ground. If the attack failed, the two fleets would be on even information footing, and the enemy would begin to pick off the groundside batteries one by one as soon as they revealed themselves. Orbital fire would not do the trick – the Incarnation ground-side air-breathing assets would have to do it, but the Incarnation force on Margaux was far larger than the defending force and could probably get at the batteries if it did so one at a time.  

Corti shook his head. “Shoot our bolt before they’re fully engaged?” 

Kirke-Moore watched Admiral Zahariev for a long moment, then shrugged his acquiescence. “It is not as bold as our approach should be, but it is better than ceding the initiative.” Whatever the retired pirate saw in the admiral’s face, it was something none of the other captains – who had far less history with their commander than his unofficial adviser did – could not detect. 

Zahariev finally turned around, his narrow jaw set firmly. The plan was obviously one he didn’t like, Liao guessed – it was one he thought he could get everyone to commit to. If the enemy fleet threw one or two cruisers to the wolves on rearguard and fled for the edge of the system, it would be a much-needed victory, and Zahariev, who Liao knew by reputation to play a conservative hand, didn’t want to risk a defeat to gain a greater victory when a lesser win seemed certain. “We will make our move, then the batteries will fire when the second group begins to move to support.” 

Captain Corti nodded, mollified, and at his cue many of the other captains seemed to decide the plan was good enough as well. 

Captain Liao stared past Zahariev at the plot for several seconds. He couldn’t shake the idea that there was a better solution, one which put the enemy in a position of extreme peril, but Margaux was shaping up to be the biggest fleet action in a century; there were simply too many moving pieces for him to see a solution, if it existed. At last, he too nodded his acceptance. 

Zahariev, seeing there were no objections, turned back to the display, suddenly animated as he began to move glowing ship-icons into formations and plan out his line of battle. The hard decision was made – the admiral was quite capable of putting the details in place. Hercules and Triasta Asteria will hold the middle of the line.” He seemed almost to be talking to himself. “MarseilleTours, and Tolouse will be in the van.” 

Liao took note that this left his own ship and its two remaining sisters in formation behind the flagship, still unable to shake the sense that something had been missed. There were many details still to iron out, but the tension had ebbed from the room – the assembled officers of the Confederated Fifth Fleet had made their choice, and soon they would find out whether it was a fatal one.